Explanatory Note:

Persovka, or pepper vodka, is most commonly infused with red chili pepper. The red-tinted drink is known for its fiery, lingering taste.

Pertsovka

Lieutenant Lucent Calbraith Karnoff stared intensely at the bottom of an empty glass, waging an internal battle with himself. The stale smell of cheap tobacco, even cheaper cologne, and the heavy perfumes of the prostitutes aggravated his headache. He began spinning the glass anxiously in the palms of his hands and watched as his distorted reflection gazed back at him. If he spun it fast enough, his features swirled together and eventually faded into the polished woodwork of the counter. As it gradually came to a stop, his face reemerged. He wanted more than anything to drown it with alcohol.

Sergeant Thomas Tebalt, upon seeing his childhood friend, pulled up an identical black pleather-covered stool beside him. The bartender grunted his harsh "You want something?" which was reserved for the lower ranking officers. Tebalt raised his hand as if to halt the rude bartender, who was in absolutely no hurry to fix him a drink, and added a courteous "I'm fine, thank you."

The two men sat in silence, letting the rowdy buzz, which could only be induced by booze and whores, wash over them. Karnoff, fully aware of his friend's presence, did not look up for fear of being hypnotized by the multitudes of glittering bottles in front him. They called to him like a chorus of seductive sirens. Karnoff did not have to sit at the bar. He chose to for some inexplicable, masochistic reason. There was no "warm, fuzzy feeling" he had been promised in rehab when he faced down his addiction. Instead, the cravings were replaced with even more deep-seeded and insatiable ones. He continued spinning the glass.

After a half dozen rotations, Tebalt reached across him and pressed his hand firmly over the top of the glass, breaking its spell on his friend. Karnoff's shoulders slumped a bit. He turned his head, raising his right eyebrow slightly, to get a better look at the person who had ruined his fun. Despite the dim lighting, Karnoff distinguished the poorly concealed concern riddling his friend's features. Tebalt motioned to an empty booth, immersed in shadows, in a secluded corner of the busy room. "Come on, let's sit over there."

Karnoff rose reluctantly, his bones creaking in protest. He twisted his body, still avoiding the bottles in front of him. He picked up the glass. Even though he was turned away from his comrade, Karnoff sensed the pleading look Tebalt shot him. He hesitated for a moment and then forlornly placed it back on the table. It would have been better if Tebalt had directly chastised him. Anger he could handle; worry and pity, he could not.

Tebalt waited for his friend to sit down first.

"It was only water." Karnoff took off his officer's cap and placed it on the table. He could not help sounding edgy and defensive.

"I trust you," Tebalt said.

Karnoff grunted in reply and then turned to face the wall. His slate-grey eyes fell upon the glossy baby-blues of a bare-breasted woman in a red thong and high-heeled shoes. She coiled her leg around a bottle of Pertsovka1 and parted her rouged lips in absolute ecstasy. Tebalt followed Karnoff's gaze to the poster. "Sorry," he murmured apologetically. However, Karnoff didn't hear him. Head spinning, he was already stumbling, in the way that is unique to sobriety, down Memory Lane.

The corpse in Karnoff's mother's casket did not belong to her. The wig that covered the woman's peeling, bald head was not the right color or texture. It was too dull, too grey, and felt like steel wool under Karnoff's finger tips as he brushed it gently while he prayed. The dress, picked out for her by his father, was one that had collected dust in the back of her closet. The make-up the mortician applied to conceal her pallid, taut skin was too thick. In Karnoff's eyes, his mother had never worn make-up in her life. In order to hide her ugly, distorted remains, they had superimposed an even more grotesque mask than the one that resided under it. Yet beneath this crude disguise, Lucent Karnoff knew that the woman lying in the silk-lined coffin before him was undeniably his mother.

It was sleeting on the day they buried her. The crystalline pellets ricocheted off the ice-encased headstones, drowning out the empty, monotonous prayers of the monsignor. Karnoff fixed his eyes on a spot of frozen grass. If he looked up, he feared he would start to cry, or worse, that no tears would come. The latter frightened him more. Perhaps he had become like his father standing behind him - hardened and emotionless.

Karnoff's skin did not prickle from the cold, but out of rage. His father was never there when he needed him the most, and always there when he wanted to be alone. At that moment, amongst the tombstones, Karnoff and his father stood closer to each other than they had in years. The musty smell of cigars chafed his nostrils, and he could taste the alcohol on the man's breath. Karnoff hoped that his father could not sense it on his, even though it had been four days since his last drink.

Tebalt remained by his side the entire time and pressed shoulders with him periodically. He could always count on Tom, even when he did not deserve his kindness. Karnoff stared harder at the ground. He did not look up until long after the final, resounding "Amen."

As he turned to join the handkerchief-toting, dry-eyed entourage heading back towards the black line of limos, Karnoff noticed a wreath of delicate blue flowers. Despite the harsh weather, all of the petals remained undamaged. To him, they seemed out of context - not so much out of place as out of time. Captivated by their cerulean color, he slowly unclenched his fists and let the cold air caress his palms. They stung from where his nails had bitten through his flesh. Now, thirteen years later to the day, Karnoff liked to think that the flowers were still there by his mother's grave, gilded in ice.

Like all healthy boys his age, Karnoff developed a deep Oedipal compassion for his mother, Lena. After elementary school, Karnoff would rush into his mother's soft, all encompassing, blue-flowered skirts. They offered him solace, protection, and reprieve when the world became too vast and frightening. When he came home, he loved to watch his mother's hips swing back and forth as she danced around the kitchen, removing the freshly baked cookies from the oven. To him she was a towering pillar of strength and consistency - an omnipotent Goddess capable of bending anything to her will, including his father - when he was around. In some sense his father's absence augmented Karnoff's attachment to his mother. Like all military men, General Alexander Xavier Karnoff placed his country first, God second, and his family - a distant third.

When Karnoff turned fifteen, the light-hearted days of his youth came to a screeching halt; his mother was diagnosed with cancer. The illness and the medicine stripped her of her autonomy and reduced her to a state of childlike dependency. When Karnoff came home from school, no welcoming aroma of warm cookies awaited him. Instead, the overpowering, sweet stench of rotting flesh, vomit, and the looming presence of death flooded his nostrils.

Everyday he washed his mother tenderly, dressed her, put ointments on her suppurating skin, emptied her bedpan, changed the soiled sheets, spoon feed her chicken broth and then changed the sheets again after she spewed it up. Everyday he knelt by her bedside, his hand coiled around her cracked, withered ones and prayed over her, straining every muscle in his fervent heart. Everyday he brushed her thin, matted locks back with his hand, accidentally pulling out chunks of what little hair remained, and kissed her goodnight on her waxy forehead.

His father came home for only a couple days every few months. He was too busy fighting in the war and clawing his way to the top of the chain of command to visit his dying wife more often. Even now Karnoff had no clue about what exactly his father did, and he never would. All he knew was that when his mother had needed him the most, when he had needed him the most, his father, one of the greatest generals to ever live, had abandoned them to fend for themselves. Yet despite all the wrongs he had committed, Karnoff could not hate his father, no matter how hard he strained every fiber of his being.

Lena's personality changed as the cancer metastasized to her brain and corrupted her memories. She began calling her son Alexander, mistaking him for her husband. Sometimes she spent hours talking to an empty chair, where Karnoff's father should have been seated, about long forgotten or imagined times. Unable to quiet her pleas for him, Karnoff often pretended to be his father, comforting her as best he could.

Eventually Lena stopped praying. When God failed to grant her death, she begged Lucent, or the non-existent Alexander, to end her life instead. When Karnoff refused, his mother lashed out at him, screaming and sobbing for hours that he wanted her to suffer. Death was the only thing his mother had ever asked of him, and Lucent Karnoff could not bring himself to grant it.

To drown out his mother's echoing pleas for mercy, shrieks of pain, and moans of despair and escape the ones that haunted his dreams, Karnoff turned to the only thing he could: alcohol. Frequent high school binging parties offered him the perfect opportunity to drink himself into oblivion. Tebalt, forever the steadfast friend, watched over Karnoff as he retched in the toilet and cleaned up after him when he missed. He selflessly offered his shoulder for his wasted companion to cry on and balance upon when he needed to stagger back home. In all the years they had been friends, Karnoff never thanked him. He was too ashamed.

Once safely back at his house, Karnoff would pass out on the couch and enter the realm of sweet, dreamless sleep. Everyday he woke up with a hangover, served his mother breakfast, greeted her nurse, went to school, and repeated the vicious cycle.

Except one March morning, in his search for a bottle of aspirin to ease his splitting headache, he discovered his mother's corpse.

Karnoff stared across the table at Tebalt, and Tebalt stared back at him. His friend was slightly cross-eyed. Thinking back on it now, perhaps he was the reason why Tebalt rarely drank. Karnoff felt the suppressed vomit rise in his throat.

"You ok? You look kind of green."

"Yeah, fine. Probably just the stench. I'm gonna get a cuppa-"

"I got it."

Before Karnoff could shove his last meal back down into his stomach, his friend was already at the counter talking to the bristly bartender.

Karnoff suddenly noticed the mirror hanging on the wall directly behind Tebalt's seat. He watched the drunken officers, and the prostitutes dangling off of them, attempt to play cards. The whores had stopped coyly slapping the men's insatiable, groping hands and submitted to their lewd ways. One slattern fell off of the table while trying to light a cigarette. As she cursed in some foreign language, the group laughed uproariously, sending poker chips skittering across the floor. Karnoff envied their carelessness.

He tore his gaze from the boisterous scene behind him and caught sight of his own reflection. He thought he saw a glint of premature grey in his jet black hair; the beginnings of the white "Karnoff shock." He immediately pulled the lock down over his eyes and began running it through his fingers, examining it slowly. His father had started to get it at his age; so had all his male predecessors.

Tebalt returned with two cups of black coffee.

"Careful, it was still boiling in the cup."

Karnoff immediately gulped down half of it despite his friend's warning. He was somewhat disappointed. The burning sensation did not have the same dry, soothing finish as alcohol.

"Do you think my hair's turning grey?"

"Uh--no. It's as black as ever. But I can't really tell. Not in this light."

"I think it's turning grey."

Karnoff swallowed back another wave of nausea and took another swig of coffee.

"So, are you going to see him?" Tebalt said at last, carefully sipping his drink.

"No. I've been waiting twenty-eight years. He can wait a bit longer. If he really wanted to see me, he'd address me by my first name - the one he saddled me with - and not by rank, like everyone else…"

"…Or even better, if it's really important, he can arrest me for insubordination. Maybe if I'm really lucky, the General will beat me into submission himself."

"Lucent, you know he wouldn't do that."

"Yeah. Right. Last time when he wanted to talk to me, he threatened to jail me because I didn't salute properly."

"I'm sure he has his reasons. Or at least, I'm sure, they seem reasonable to him."

"There are no reasons. Justifications is more like it. Why are you defending him?"

Tebalt stared at him over the brim of his coffee cup.

"Lucent, you're shaking the table."

Karnoff looked down at his blanched knuckles, and exhaled slowly. It was the closest thing to an apology he could give.

Karnoff's watch beeped, heralding the first hour of a new day.

"I have to clock in at oh-five hundred."

Tebalt tilted his head, looking directly into Karnoff's eyes.

"You should talk with your father. He loves you more than you know."

Karnoff pressed his cap firmly over his head, shielding himself from Tebalt's gaze.

"I'll catch you later."

Karnoff strode across the room and slid a crumpled note across the counter. He pointed to the seated sergeant.

"I'm paying for his, too. Put anything else he has on my tab."

The bartender shot him a dirty look.

"Keep it. He already paid. Said you'd try to foot it."

Karnoff glanced at his friend, somewhat taken-a-back. Tebalt smiled slightly and tipped the brim of his cap in acknowledgement.

Stepping out of the bar, Karnoff inhaled deeply. He welcomed the cold, sobering effects of the early March morning.